*** boys brigade

Boys' Brigade

Figure 1.--This English Boys Brigade group was photographed about 1930. Notice the characteristic pill box caps and the fact that there is still no standard uniform. Also note the kepis and Glengarry-style campaign caps than the officers wear. Also note that the officers appear to have a full uniform.

The Boys' Brigade is a Christian organisation for boys aged between 6 and 18 years and is the oldest uniformed youth organisation in the world, being founded in Glasgow, UK in 1883 by Sir William Alexander Smith. It was the worls's first uniformed youth group, forned two decades before the Boy Scouts. Groups were soon formed throughout the English speaking world. The Christain focus of the Brigade, however, limits its spread even among religiously oriented Christain families. The Brigade has never appealed to Cathloic and many fundamentalist Christian denominations. Scouting after its founding became a much larger youth movement. The Boys' Brigade has, however, continued to function as a small, but not unimportant youth group.


The Boys Brigade originated in Scotland. It was the first uniformed youth orgaization in the world. It is stronrst in Britain, but groups have spread to many other countries, primarily British colonis that are now independent. Sir William Alexander Smith founded the Boys Brigade on October 4, 1883 when he formed a company of 35 Boys at Free Church Mission Hall, North Woodside Road, Glasgow. William Smith, a Sunday School teacher and an officer of the 1st Lanark Rifle Volunteers devised a unique system of church activities for boys based on religion and discipline. Following the success of The Boys' Brigade, other uniformed organisations were started which were more secular in nature or associated with other religions. The early Boys' Brigade was strongly associated with the Church of Scotland and subsequent with the Church of England as the movement spread to England. Other similar groups were organized in Britain. The Boy Scouts was at first conceived as a Scouting program for the Boys' Brigade. For the first year, the 1st Glasgow company was alone, but shortly afterwards this new method of dealing with boys began to spread. By the end of the third year the movement numbered 2,000 boys, mostly in Scotland, centred around Glasgow, with companies ranged from Ayr to Inverness. Shortly afterwards the movement filtered southward into England, all the way to London itself. Overseas expansion has generally been limited to former British colonies. Unlike Scouting, the Christian character of the organization limits its spread in many cpountries. One early innovation was to hold a camp--at the time, public opinion was aghast at the idea of Boys camping out in the "wilds"! The first camp by the 1st Glasgow company was held in a building at Tighnabruach on the Kyles of Bute in 1886. The annual display at the Royal Albert Hall in 1903 was of special significance - from it can be traced the very start of the Boy Scout movement! General Baden-Powell, back from his exploits in Mafeking, agreed to preside over the forthcoming display and began a sincere friendship with the founder.


A time-line chronolog is helpful in following the history of the Boys' Brigade and other related uniformed youth groups in Britain and other countries. The chronology also helps to put the uniform developments in perspective.

Social Class

Class divisions have tended to be sharper than in America, especially before World War II. The "class flavor" of both the Boys' Brigade and Boy Scouts meant that working-class boys were less interested in participating than middle-class boys. Working-class boys tended to be less willing to accept the discipline as well as the support for the existing social system that these groups supported. There was some of the flavor of the public school in early British scouting. At the time uniforms were associated with the military and private schooling. In addition the cost, especially the cost of the Scout uniform made it difficult for working-class children to participate. Boys Scouts might be taunted in some areas. A sample jeer was, "Here comes the Boys' Brigade, All smovered in marmalade, A tup'ny'apenny pill-box, And 'arf a yard of braid." [Macleod, p. 222.] We suspect that with the Boys' Brigade it was not so much the cost that detered participation, but social attitudes. The influence of Socialists generally not church members frew in the early 20th century. The working-class was increasinglu rejecting a social system that did not promotetheir interests and the Boys' Brigade was seen by many as a part of that system. Another factor was the goody-goody image that was a particular anatema among working-class boys. We are less sure about the imapct of social class on the Boys' Brigade in other countries.

Founding Concept

Sir William Smith had a very different attitude on how the church should work with boys than was commonly accepted at the time. The focus was laways, however, on the church. The Boy Scouts would eventually pick up on many of Smith's ideas, but without such a strong religious and military focus.

Motto and Emblem

Motto: Sure & Stedfast taken from Hebrews 6:19. The biblical spelling of stedfast has been retained.

Emblem: The emblem was originally an anchor. Like the motto, it stems from the verse "which hope we have as an anchor of the soul..."(Hebrews 6:19). With the union of The Boys' Brigade and The Boys' Life Brigade in 1926, a red cross was added to the anchor. (The word Obedience was added some 10 years later).

Figure 2.--The Boys' Brigade originated in the U.K. and still remains strong there. Note the range of activities offered.


From the early years, the leaders of the companies had come together to form the Council of the Boys' Brigade, providing the machinery for the administration of the movement. In 1887 William Smith was appointed as the first full-time Brigade Secretary, and he dedicated his time to the organisation. He brought many influential people into the organisation to strengthen its advance, including the Duke of York (future George VI), who filled the position of Patron as prince and King for 40 years. As Duke of York he had promoted a camping scheme bringing together boys of a wide range of social backgrounds, a novel idea at the time. The Boys' Brigade leaders interestingly tended to wear destinctive uniforms from the boys. This was differet from the Boy Scouts wear adult leadrers tended to wear similar uniforms.


The Boys' Brigade is very much a Protestant organization. Catholic boys did not join the Boy's Brigade. But the religion issue is a bit more complicated than a Catholic/Protestranht divide. After all, Catholic were a minority in England. The Scotts where the Boys' Brigade was founded were mostly Presbyterians. The Boys' Brigade spread to England, but was mostly spread by Scots exiles who were largely Presbeterians. While Presbeterians were a majority in Scotland, they were not in England. As a result, there were difficulties attracting Church of England (Anglican), Methodists, and other non-Presbyterian boys. This is one of the reasons that the Scouts who expressly were non-denominatiional quickly out paced the Boys Brigade in the 1900s. Religious differences seems to be the reason that different Brigade organizations formed, like the Boys' Life Brigade, the Church Lads' Brigade, the Jewish Lads' Brigade, and the Catholic Boys' Brigade. The Brigade eventually did its best to pursue a more ecumenical approach. Brigade units are founded by churches, but different denominations found them and not just Presbeterians. The Protestant affiliation is also why the Boys' Brigade is popular in Northern Ireland (Ulster), at least among Protestant boys.

Current Status

There are now in the region of 100,000 members in the UK. There are also Boys' Brigade companies around the world. It now operates in over 60 countries worldwide, reaching out to young people as effectively as ever, through exciting activities and a challenging programme. The Boys' Brigade is a member of The World Conference ???.


Each boy in the Boys' Brigade belongs to a Company. Each company must be attached to a church. The company is under the control of a Captain who has a staff made up of Lieutenants, Warrant Officers, Helpers and Instructors. Each company is split into a number of sections. The Boys' Brigade units are divided into various age groupings:
Anchor Boys: Anchor boys is for boys aged 6-8 years.
Junior Section: Junior section is for boys aged 8-11 years.
Company Section: Company section is for boys aged 11-15 years.
Seniors: Seniors are for boys aged 15-18 years.

Figure 3.--Boys' Brigade uniforms are blue campaign caps, blue shirts, and blue short or long pants. Many units have pipe bands, showing the Scottish origins of the Brigade, and the bands wear kilts with the uniform. Note the younger boys wear blue shirts and white shoulder straps and the oldder boys have blazers and differently styles caps.


We have begun to acquire some basic information about the Boys' Brigade uniform. The Brigade was the first boys' uniformed group, but they had a unique appraoch to allow any boy that was interested to participate. The Boys' Brigade uniforms from the foundation had a military look. This reflected the military approach of the organization which stressed drill and discipline. There appeara to have been differences among the uniforms of early Boys' Brigade units. The idea was to have a very basic uniform that every boy could afford. The boy bassically wore his on clothes, but added a few in expensive items to give the unit a uniformed look. A full uniform like the Scouts was not adopted until the 1960s.

Basic approach

The Boys' Brigade was the earliest boys' uniformed group, being founded in 1883. While the uniform was a basic part of the program from the beginning, the basic approach of the Boy's Brigade to te uniform was to keep it simple and thus inexpensive. This mean that virtually any boy could participate and not just boys from middleclass families. The basic uniform was the pillbox cap used by the British Army, a belt (often but not alwats with a round Boys' Brigade buckle and a shoulder strap), and a haversack. These items were worn over a boys own clothes, generally his best sut. This basic uniform continued to be worn by British Brigaders into the 1960s. We have however seen some Brigaders even before the 1960s in full uniforms, usually the adult leaders.

Military influence

The Boys' Brigade uniforms from the foundation had a military look. This reflected the military approach of the organization which stressed drill and discipline. There appeara to have been differences among the uniforms of early Boys' Brigade units.


Boys during the first year of the Boys' Brigade (presumably 1883) only wore a rosette as a badge, and the officers wore a detinctly civilian-looking bowler hat. The following year (1884) the cap, belt, and haversack were brought together as the first uniform. The idea was to have a very basic uniform that every boy could afford. The boy bassically wore his on clothes, but added a few in expensive items to give the unit a uniformed look. The pill-box in common use during these days had no chin-strap and fitted close to the head, but it had two distinguished rows of white braid worn at a jaunty angle. Soon afterwards the proper pill-box was brought in and the officers turned to the Glengarry-like campaign cap for their headgear. Afterwards the forage cap, haversack and belt were introduced. Eventually a full uniform was approved. The Boys' Brigade uniforms are much more standard around the world than Scout uniforms which have adopted uniforms incorporating various aspects of national dress. The Boys' Brigade uniforms is generally blue foraging caps, blue shirt, and blue pants. Initially short pants were generally worn, but most groups now wear long pants. Shorts and knee socks are still commonly worn in New Zealand. Many Boys' Brigade units have pipe bands, reflecting the Scotish origins of the organization. The bands generally wear kilts. Regular Scottish Boys' Brigade members have also worn kilts, but HBC is unsure how common this was. We note early Boys' Brigade members from Scotland wearing kilts, but we do not know how common it was.


The Boys' Brigade initially emphasize close order martial drill which was considered good discipline for the boys. Religious instruction was another important early activity and continues to this day. Scouting at the turn of the 20th century was proposed as an activity or unit within the Boys' Brigade. The more secular appeal of Scouting soon eclipsed the Boys' Brigade. Gradually the Brigade has moved toward offering many of the same activities pursued in Scouting, including games and camping. The Brigade continues, however, the stress religious activities. Brigade units are organized by churches. One enduring activity pursued by early Brigaders are marching bands, including pipe bands.

Figure 4.--The Boys' Brigade has an especially strong New Zealand contingent. This photograph shows New Zealand Brigaders in 1992.

National Boys' Brigade Groups

The Boys' Brigade is primarily a British organization. There are, however, important Boys' Brigade units in several other cuntries--mostly English spesking countries. The largest overseas units were formed in the British Diminions. There were, however, small groups formed in non-English speaking countries as well. Some units have been formed in America, but the organization has not proven very successful out side of British commonwealth countries. HBC at this time has only limited information on Boys' Brigade uniforms in different countries. Boys Brigade uniform to not have thar substantial differences among countries that Scout uniforms have. They appear to be more similar than Scout uniforms, but there are differences.

School Policies

We know that many private schools formed Cub and Scout groups in the 1920s-50s. This began to change in the 1970s as schools began to object to the Scouting bearacracy, but earlier these school Scout grouops werre quite common. I have never heard of a Boys' Brigade unit at the schools, even the Church sponsored schools. Our information on this question, however, is still quite limited. A British reader tells us, "I have also not heard of Boys' Brigade detachments in schools."


Macleod, David I. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 315p.


Navigate the Historic Boys' Uniform Chronology Pages:
[Return to the Main chronologies page]
[The 1900s] [The 1910s] [The 1920s] [The 1930s] [The 1940s] [The 1950s] [The 1960s] [The 1970s] [The 1980s] [The 1990s] [The 2000s]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Uniform Web Site:
[Activities] [Biographies] [Chronologies] [Countries] [Essays] [Garments] [Organizations] [Religion] [Other]
[Introduction] [Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Questions] [Unknown images]
[Boys' Uniform Home]

Navigate the Historic Boys' Uniform Web organizatiion pages:
[Return to the Main youth organization page]
[Boys' Brigade] [Church Lads] [Camp Fire] [Hitler Youth] [National] [Pioneers] [Royal Rangers] [Scout]

Created: November 15, 1998
Last updated: 7:59 PM 9/6/2014